Big Publishing

Temperature check from two US CEOs at Frankfurt 2017

22 November 2017

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

It is no surprise that the public remarks at Frankfurt by Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle and Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy contain gems worth pondering. Book publishing has been fortunate to have really smart people leading the biggest companies during our period of digital transition. The apparent collusion over the implementation of agency pricing — which is itself proving to be a mixed blessing — was definitely a collective setback and has to be seen as a very big mistake (that I didn’t see that way at the time.) But, for the most part, book publishers have done very well in a time of great turmoil, certainly better than other publishers of print or any other big media from the 20th century.

Now we have settled into a period of apparent stability. The two big shifts that were big challenges to navigate — from printed books to digital books and from in-store purchase to online purchase of the content — are no longer occurring at a dizzying pace. From the commercial publisher’s perspective, the ebook market is flat or declining and the print book share is holding its own.

. . . .

Dohle’s speech delivered virtually unqualified optimism. He is jubilant about the stability in the market with print holding an 80% share. (He takes a dig at the fact that prognosticators would have predicted that it could be ebooks that would hold the 80% share by now.

. . . .

Dohle points out that his company is now publishing John Green’s follow-up to “The Fault in Our Stars”. I’m sure his marketers will tell him that they’re aiming for lots of adult readers with their efforts, whatever the original intentions of the author were about the audience.

. . . .

Two observations from [Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn] Reidy seemed extremely important to take on board. One is that self-publishing is taking a growing share of the market. She characterized the self-publishing share in America as “huge, no matter what statistics you use.” And the companion observation should be a wake-up call to publishers. As she was quoted by Michael Cader in Publishers Lunch:

“The romance market, which used to be huge in mass market, has pretty much dried up and gone to digital original. [And] it has put pressure on pricing of all ebooks…. Those are consumers who, if they wanted a book, they used to come to us, and now they go elsewhere.”

. . . .

The other elephant in the room which got no mention, as near as I can see, from either CEO, is Amazon. That growth in print sales that publishers are so happy about was given a huge boost by Amazon shifting promotional dollars from ebook-discounting to print-discounting when Agency forced them to reconsider their strategy.

. . . .

The growth of sales at Amazon presents a number of potential challenges to the big houses. It means that their biggest trading partner will push them for more margin. It means that the channel with the growth is one where big publishers don’t have an automatic advantage because of size. And, if the print sales being boosted in relation to digital is because Amazon’s pricing strategy can whipsaw the consumer in that way, it can also reverse itself if Amazon decides to change its strategy.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

One additional point PG would add, the biggest elephant in Big Publishing’s room, is that Barnes & Noble is going to disappear.

Whether it continues to disappear slowly (Barnes and Noble has been closing 15-20 bookstores annually in the US for the last ten years) or if it collapses all at once (like Borders did seven years ago when 511 Borders superstores and 175 stores in the Waldenbooks Specialty Retail division closed and, within a few weeks, disappeared into bankruptcy court).

If Big Publishing continues to hitch its wagon to hard copy books, it will be relying upon a retail distribution network that becomes more mom and pop with each passing year.

A major marketing push for a new title through Barnes & Noble can be a powerful tool in launching books for big publishers. Doing the same thing through a bunch of  shops run by Fred and Ethel that carry inventories perhaps 20% of the size (at best) of a typical Barnes & Noble is a whole different story.

How Do I Keep My Head Up while Finding a Publisher?

13 November 2017

From Korean author Leonard Chang via The Booklist Reader:

My latest novel, The Lockpicker, had a tortuous history, and made me question the sanity of agents, editors—and even myself.

I will start by being so bold as to quote a rejection by an esteemed former editor, publisher, and literary agent who shall remain nameless, but who read The Lockpicker in manuscript form. He wrote a brief letter of praise, but ultimately rejected the novel. The line from his letter that shouted back at me was thus:

What fails for me is that it [that] virtually nothing is made of the fact that these guys are Koreans. I suppose in the alleged melting pot of America that might be a good thing, but for the book it doesn’t lend anything even lightly exotic to the narrative or the characters.

Before you get shocked or wince sympathetically, I must confess that this was not the first time I’d receive this kind of rejection. I won’t get into the identity and racial politics of why this critique is so pernicious, but it’s enough to say that exoticism for exoticism’s sake, especially from a Korean-American writer who sees himself as American and not exotic, is just, well, antiquated.

Another rejection for another novel, another, longer quote from a legendary editor:

The characters, especially the main character, just do not seem Asian enough. They act like everyone else. They don’t eat Korean food, they don’t speak Korean, and you have to think about ways to make these characters more ’ethnic,’ more different. We get too much of the minutiae of [the characters’] lives and none of the details that separate Koreans and Korean-Americans from the rest of us. For example, in the scene when she looks into the mirror, you don’t show how she sees her slanted eyes, or how she thinks of her Asianness.

The Lockpicker is my eighth novel. Through the years, I’ve learned you cannot educate a hegemonic editor in power; you ignore him and move on. You find another editor, and you keep writing. There is no practical advice other than moving on. All my books have outlasted those naysayers. Quite literally: Those two editors above have since passed on, may they rest in peace. Meanwhile, I continue writing, no matter what the rejections may say.

Being a novelist is very, very difficult, but I would argue that the journey of getting published is even more treacherous. Everyone gets stupid rejections, but there’s a special reward for those who soldier on in spite of them.

Link to the rest at The Booklist Reader and thanks to Elaine for the tip.

Big Publishers See Third-Quarter Gains

12 November 2017

From Publishers Weekly:

Three of four large trade houses that reported results for the quarter ended Sept. 30, 2017, said that sales and earnings in the period were higher than in the same period last year.

The strongest sales performance was turned in by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s trade division, where sales were up 11.8%, though earnings were up a more modest 1.5%. The gain at HMH was due to sales of frontlist and backlist print titles, such as The Polar Express, the Little Blue Truck series, and It Takes Two, and strong e-book sales, led by The Handmaid’s Tale.

. . . .

Simon & Schuster followed a familiar pattern, posting sales and earnings increases from the third quarter of 2016. Overall, S&S reported that sales rose 1%, to $228 million, in the quarter, and operating income increased 4.5%, to $46 million. According to S&S CEO Carolyn Reidy, sales of downloadable audio rose about 37%, sales of print books posted gains, and e-book sales fell again. Contributing to the improved results was a good performance by the publisher’s international group: Hillary Clinton’s What Happened had solid sales in Canada, Ireland, and the U.K., Reidy said, and the international division also benefited from foreign sales of Rupi Kaur’s new book, The Sun and Her Flowers.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Macmillan’s Pronoun Self-Publishing Platform Signs Off

7 November 2017

From Publishing Perspectives:

Some eyebrows were raised in the spring of 2016 when Macmillan bought Pronoun. And today (November 6), the trade publisher has announced that it’s closing the self-publishing platform.

“We are proud of the product we built,” the publishing house says in an “Epilogue” posted on the home page of the site, “but even more so, we’re grateful for the community of authors that made it grow. Your feedback shaped Pronoun’s development, and together we changed the way authors connect with readers.”

The statement doesn’t elaborate on how Pronoun is deemed to have “changed the way authors connect with readers.” And its message is sobering: “Unfortunately, Pronoun’s story ends here.”

The statement avoids any clear explanation of why the Pronoun is being shut down.

. . . .

Pronoun was assessed by many in the self-publishing community (as by Doppler in an earlier ALLi review) as a fairly simple interface for ebook creation by comparison to the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) system.

And yet, there was at times a community-wide hesitation around the platform because it charged nothing. Authors retained their rights and 100 percent of a retailer’s net payment–no cut to Pronoun. Doppler wrote in that earlier review that Pronoun’s services were free to authors because the company had $3.5 million in venture capital funding from Avalon Ventures and revenue from “its not-insubstantial legacy business.” Future revenue, he wrote, would come from “voluntary partnerships with high-performing authors. These authors may be invited to publish through Pronoun’s traditional imprints, giving up a share of royalties for enhanced services.”

. . . .

Pronoun spokeswoman Allison Horton was quoted by Doppler last year saying an ambitious thing for a company about to be bought by a Big Five trade publisher: “Pronoun’s goal is to make indie publishing so successful that it becomes the predominant way great books are published.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives and thanks to Andrew for the tip.

PG says large and established corporations sometimes purchase tech startups to move into new markets and inject new thinking and dynamism into the parent organization.

It never works.

The employees in the mothership sense an alien presence and organizational antibodies attack. Various and sundry corporate practices are imposed on the acquisition and its people. The startup (now a “division” or “department”) must adopt corporate budgeting processes and conduct quarterly performance reviews for all its employees. Company-wide “best practices” will, of course, be best practices for the new acquisition.

Within a couple of months, the most talented of the startup employees who have not been required to sign employment agreements start thinking about new jobs.

Headhunters swarm to any new source for good tech/internet marketing/programming/etc. talent. People who are valuable to the acquired startup are also valuable to other innovative companies who aren’t under attack from corporate antibodies and where nobody has to sit through mandatory lectures from HR.

The people who have signed employment agreements suffer from constantly declining morale as the most talented members of their team leave for greener pastures. They discover that attracting equivalent talent from outside the mothership is almost impossible and have no choice but to use not-so-talented tech people from elsewhere in the larger organization.

Development of the product slows down, then it slows down some more. Product release schedules are revised. Planned new features are dropped because they’re taking too long to develop. Upper management requires much more frequent updates on progress and hard commitments for new product releases. The new product features list is cut down even further. People start talking about how to get the minimum acceptable product out the door by the scheduled deadline. Nobody even remembers why the new product seemed like a good idea several months ago.

The during his/her regular meetings with the big boss and the quarterly meetings of the board, the CFO of the mothership brings more and more discouraging reports about the acquired company. Nobody can project when it might become profitable.

Managers in other parts of the company that are profitable increase the intensity of their criticisms of the CEO’s formerly pet project.

The OP indicates that it took about 18 months for Pronoun to morph from a sexy investment in Macmillan’s future to an unacceptable boat anchor that was never going to meet revenue and profit standards for the company.

Audio helps S&S to 1% rise in third quarter

6 November 2017

From The Bookseller:

Simon & Schuster’s worldwide sales grew 1% in the third quarter, up from $226m to $228m (£175m). The increase was attributed by its parent, CBS, to growth in print book sales and digital audio sales.

. . . .

Top sellers for the third quarter included What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sleeping Beauties by father and son team Stephen King and Owen King.

. . . .

According to Publishers Lunch, c.e.o. Carolyn Reidy said activity “the big upswing was audio, and international” sales, and “not just in online sales; it’s pretty much across the board”.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG notes that a combination of a 1% sales increase plus a “big upswing” in audio and international may mean big downswings in ebooks.

Book Publisher Sales Were $5.72 Billion in the First Half of 2017

27 October 2017

From The Association of American Publishers:

Publishers’ revenues (sales to bookstores, wholesalers, direct to consumer, online retailers, etc.) were $5.72 billion – up by $195.9 million (3.5%) for the first half of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016. Tracked categories include: Trade – fiction/non-fiction/religious, PreK-12 Instructional Materials, Higher Education Course Materials, Professional Publishing, and University Presses.

Revenue for Trade Books grew by 3.0%, with revenue increases in both Adult Books and Childrens/YA books over 2016.

“What a testament to the importance of the publishing industry,” said Maria A. Pallante, President and CEO, Association of American Publishers.

. . . .

Trade Books

  • By Category: In the first half of 2017, compared to the first half of 2016, trade sales were $3.27 billion – up by $95.8 million (3.0%)
    • Adult Books had $2.22 billion in sales, up $66.7 million (3.1%)
    • Childrens/YA Books had $852.4 million in sales, up $36.8 million (4.5%)
    • Religious Presses had $197.0 million in sales, down by $7.7 million (-3.8%)
  • By Format: In the first half of 2017 vs. 2016
    • Paperback/Mass Market books had $1.27 billion in sales, down $23.6 million (-1.8%)
    • Hardback books had $1.11 billion in sales, up $98.7 million (9.7%)
    • eBooks had $555.7 million in sales, down $26.8 million (-4.6%)
    • Downloaded audio had $157.7 million in sales, up $38.2 million (32.0%)
    • Other formats (including board books, physical audio) had $181.8 million in sales, up $9.4 million (5.4%)

Below is a chart that shows the market share of various Trade Book formats for the first half of the year from the past six years. Print books – including paperback, mass market and hardback – account for more than 70% of publisher revenue of trade books. Audiobooks more than doubled their share since 2011.

Link to the rest at AAP

Shelf Awareness points out that, while the first half of the year was up, sales for the month of June were down.

From Shelf Awareness:

In June, total net book sales in the U.S. fell 1.9%, to $1.45 billion, compared to the same period in 2016.

. . . .

E-books in all categories were down 14.9%.

. . . .

Sales by category in June compared to June 2016:

Link to the rest at Shelf Awareness

PG says when the AAP’s president feels the need to brag about how important the publishing industry is, he wonders whether this reflects a bit of insecurity.

iBooks Author Conference Highlights Worries about iBooks Ecosystem

26 October 2017

From Tidbits:

There has been a lot of talk lately about how dedicated Apple is to its professional users, the ones who use Apple hardware and software to make their livings.

. . . .

In a conference room tucked away in a library on the campus of Vanderbilt University, I spent a morning surrounded by professional Apple users who earn their living with one piece of Apple software: iBooks Author.

. . . .

Authors who choose iBooks Author do so because it’s free and it’s flexible, but the other reason I heard repeatedly was that it’s the “best in class.” iBooks Author can do things that no other publishing tool can do, making it easy to create multi-touch, multimedia-intensive experiences. Metrock said he is asked once a week about a Windows equivalent of iBooks Author. “It doesn’t exist,” he says.

Jason LaMar, an Apple Distinguished Educator and author of “Ohio: Pathway to the Presidency” mentioned that Apple hates the name iBooks Author because it undersells what the app can actually do. It’s the closest thing Apple has to a modern-day reincarnation of HyperCard, and it even has a built-in publishing conduit to the iBooks Store and a reading app, iBooks, that’s bundled with hundreds of millions of devices running iOS and macOS.

That might sound like a ticket to publishing fortune, but it’s sadly not the case. Denise Clifton of Tandemvines Publishing, who worked on the investigative reporting book “An Air That Still Kills,” said that the iBooks Author version was the best and most advanced, but sold fewer copies than any other.

Even giving an iBooks Author book away for free isn’t enough. Despite the fact that Jason LaMar’s book was promoted by Ohio’s Secretary of State, was recommended to every school superintendent in the state, and is the top education book in the iBooks Store, only 3000 copies have been downloaded from the iBooks Store.

It’s no secret that Apple doesn’t pay much attention to iBooks Author.

. . . .

iBooks Author was one of Steve Jobs’s final initiatives, and he had ambitions to conquer the textbook market, as detailed in Walter Isaacson’s biography, “Steve Jobs.”

“The process by which states certify textbooks is corrupt. But if we can make the textbooks free, and they come with the iPad, then they don’t have to be certified. The crappy economy at the state level will last for a decade, and we can give them an opportunity to circumvent that whole process and save money,” Jobs told Isaacson.

It wasn’t until after Jobs’s death that Apple launched iBooks Author (see “Apple Goes Back to School with iBooks 2, iBooks Author, and iTunes U,” 19 January 2012), but even so, it was a revelation to publishers, seemingly poised to change the industry. Michael Cohen’s “Why iBooks Author is a Big Deal” (21 January 2012) is a perfect encapsulation of that early optimism. Even initial concerns were optimistic because Michael was afraid Apple was about to take over publishing!

But as we now know, that didn’t happen. So what did?

Metrock and many others cite the 2013 antitrust ruling against Apple as the event that killed Apple’s enthusiasm for publishing. It was both expensive and led to years of cumbersome antitrust monitoring. If you want to understand the legalities there, you won’t find a better explanation than Adam Engst’s “Explaining the Apple Ebook Price Fixing Suit” (10 July 2013).

“Most people think it took Apple’s appetite away for innovating in the digital book space,” Metrock said.

. . . .

Metrock suggests that no one at Apple has the heart to kill it because it’s one of Jobs’s final legacies. “If this weren’t Apple’s, it would have been killed,” Metrock added.

. . . .

Apple seems content to let the entire iBooks Author ecosystem stagnate. Metrock highlighted how Apple remodeled the iOS App Store for iOS 11 while the iBooks Store remains unchanged, with poor discoverability. “If you’re a small or medium-size publisher counting on revenue, the iBooks Store is not for you, unless you can get on the front page, but good luck with that,” Metrock said.

Link to the rest at Tidbits and thanks to Dave for the tip.

PG will reiterate his prior opinion from the time of the original antitrust litigation – Apple and its five co-conspirator publishers, the Price-Fix Six, were incredibly stupid in their illegal behavior which, at a minimum, should have raised a forest of red flags for managers and their attorneys.

From an antitrust legal perspective, the verdict of the trial court was pretty much a foregone conclusion. None of the participants were in the least bit intelligent in their actions. Many other price-fixing conspiracies have done a far better job at structuring and concealing activities in a way designed to avoid adverse legal consequences. Some of the intelligent conspiracies have been successful and others have not, but the Apple/Big Publisher conspiracy was doomed from the start.

How Harvey Weinstein Used His Book Imprint to Cover His Tracks

26 October 2017

From The Hollywood Reporter:

In 2003, former Miramax employee Rachel Pine started shopping a novel, The Twins of Tribeca, about a young ingenue who goes to work at Glorious Pictures, run by the notoriously larger-than-life brothers Tony and Phil Waxman. It was pitched as a satirical roman a clef of her time as a publicist at Miramax in the 1990s.

Interest was high. More than a dozen publishers bid in the first round of an auction for the publishing rights. But then around the second or third round a new bidder popped up: Harvey Weinstein.

Having failed to secure a copy of the manuscript (which at that point consisted only of a few sample chapters and a proposal), Weinstein decided to just buy it. He called Pine from Rome, telling her, “How much money do you want? I don’t want to be your stalking horse” [to get more money from another publisher]. Pine asked for only one thing from him, “You have to publish the book. You have to leave it alone.” Weinstein replied, “I will and you have my word on that.” Pine, who spoke with The Hollywood Reporter from her home in London about her experience, laughs at that memory now. “It was probably the most civil conversation I had with him.”

And Harvey remained true to his word. Mostly. He only asked for one small change in the manuscript, recalls Pine. “I think it was about Harvey not being handsome or something.” (Pine thinks the brothers might have wanted other changes but they were in the middle of negotiating their 2005 exit from Disney and had other things on their minds.)

But in other ways, Weinstein did undermine the book. Even though foreign rights were sold in about nine countries, the manuscript was never released in England. Pine suspects it was because Harvey was dating second wife-to-be Georgina Chapman, who lived in London, and he didn’t want her to see it. And when the book started picking up sales right as the Weinsteins were negotiating funding for their post-Disney venture, The Weinstein Company, the publisher pulled the plug on any more publicity. Her book publicist told her, “You can’t repeat this, but Harvey basically told us to stop working on it.”

Pine’s story illuminates just one of the ways Weinstein used his company’s publishing imprint — first known as Talk Miramax Books and then later, after he and brother Bob split from Disney and set up The Weinstein Company, as Weinstein Books — to further his aims over nearly two decades. (After the recent news of Weinstein’s predatory sexual behavior broke, Hachette Book Group, which was Weinstein Books’ publishing partner, shuttered the imprint and reassigned books in the pipeline to other divisions.)

Though it was never a huge moneymaker, the publishing imprint was far from just a plaything for the Weinstein brothers. It was staffed by respected people — originally Jonathan Burnham, now the publisher of Harper division of HarperCollins, and recently by Georgina Levitt and Amanda Murray, who won plaudits for making it a strong female-centric imprint. And it had its share of notable successes, including smash kids series Percy Jackson and the Olympians and Artemis Fowl. It was reported to be profitable within two years of starting up.

But it also served as a vehicle for Weinstein to reward friends, curry favor with the powerful and perhaps try to silence and even buy favorable coverage from journalists. Weinstein made clear he was very much involved in the publishing operation. “Every final decision is mine,” he told The New York Times in 2002, adding, “I have strong input into the creative side.”

. . . .

“In the beginning when it was Talk Miramax, I think he also looked at it as a way of legitimizing himself,” observes Pine, who started working at Miramax in 1995. She recalls Harvey’s excitement at hosting a book party for Caroline Kennedy, who had published a tome of her mother’s favorite poetry, that drew the widow of the Shah of Iran, among others, as guests.

But the roster of journalists who signed with Miramax/Talk and Weinstein is just as impressive, and now raises eyebrows, considering these are some of the same figures who might have published revelations about Weinstein’s serial harassment of women years before those claims came forward this month. Weinstein gave a low seven-figure advance to Arianna Huffington for Fanatics and Fools, about Republican leaders (and also a deal for a TV show). Vogue contributing editor Plum Sykes published the novel Bergdorf Blondes, Vanity Fair’s James Walcott had Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants, about right-wing pundits, Page Six’s Paula Froelich wrote The It Guide to getting famous, MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski was signed for three books and her co-host Joe Scarborough was to write a still unpublished book on fatherhood). Variety editor Peter Bart contracted with Weinstein for three separate books. Several film critics had deals, including then Variety reviewer (and now THRcritic) Todd McCarthy for a book about female race car drivers in the 1950s and New York Film Critics Circle chairman Marshall Fine for a biography of John Cassavetes.

Link to the rest at The Hollywood Reporter

PG wonders where we would be without our curators of culture.

The Persistence of Print

24 October 2017

From First Things:

Just a few years ago, if you asked an editor at a large publishing house about the prospects of the print industry, his face would have fallen. People weren’t reading as much, it seemed, social media were sucking up all the leisure minutes, and bookstores were closing. (Borders failed in 2011—a terrible blow.)

E-books seemed to be the only bright spot, the one possible pathway to survival. I had lunch with former President Jimmy Carter around that time, and when he walked up to the table, he held up his Kindle and proclaimed, “Mark—this is going to save reading in America!” He proceeded to tell me that he had hiked in the Georgia woods the preceding week, paused on a hilltop, and downloaded Anna Karenina. No bookstore or library needed, just the handy device. The days of books were numbered.

That’s all changed. Wall Street Journal reported last week from the annual Frankfurt book fair, a large international gathering of publishers and booksellers, print revenue is up!

. . . .

“Book publishers are giving an advance review of the industry’s future, and it looks a lot like the past.”

. . . .

It was thought that the resistance to screens and preference for books was just a generational matter. People liked books because they grew up with them. They didn’t read on screens so much, merely due to old habits, or nostalgia, or plain curmudgeonliness. Once the millennials head into middle age, they’ll take with them the screen-reading dispositions they acquired in childhood.

. . . .

Something about screen reading may be less natural, congenial, or in some fashion “human,” than book reading.

Link to the rest at First Things and thanks to Dave for the tip.

“Diversity in Publishing” Doesn’t Exist — But Here’s How It Can

23 October 2017

From The Literary Hub:

I’m often asked to speak about a thing that doesn’t actually exist: diversity in publishing. Ironically, I don’t think this is because people get any pleasure from hearing me talk about this thing that doesn’t exist, any more than they get pleasure from hearing strangers tediously relay the details of their dreams. And yet we keep talking about this abstraction, this thing that doesn’t exist, as if it could be conjured through the power of lectures and panel discussions.

The word itself has suffered from its failure to describe a reality. Diversity has become an empty, ugly, punishing sound, like a wave of coughs or the revving of a stalled engine. It’s in the category of thing that people generally agree with in principle, although they’re not exactly sure why they’re nodding their heads, and are confused about how to actually achieve—or perhaps not confused at all but worried that it will cost more than they’re willing to bear, which for many people might be any cost at all. But I think there are ways to anchor the question of diversity in publishing in reality—and ways to achieve it that will only grow the work we do to greater abundance, with no meaningful loss.

My own story of getting into publishing, a story about my own luck and the generosity of others, is illustrative in some ways. My first attempt at a real job in publishing was when I was called in for an interview at a strange small (now defunct) publisher called Paragon House. I had just graduated from high school when I came in for that interview and hadn’t yet enrolled in college. While still in high school I interned at a small book-packaging company, and the summer after I graduated, I freelanced for other small, weird publishers of the kind that used to dot New York City. It was a strange job choice for an 18-year-old, but I’d loved books and libraries and bookstores all my life.

. . . .

There was little popular publishing for black readers, at least from mainstream publishers; what there was was done by small houses like Holloway House, who published thrillingly well-crafted pulp like Pimp by Iceberg Slim and the works of Donald Goines, which I found on the book tables of 125th Street in Harlem, where I lived. Up the street from those tables was Liberation Books, where I found works by Afrocentric scholars like Molefi Asante and John Henrik Clark. New York’s tonier independent bookstores back then used to look on black boys with the same suspicion, contempt, and fear as the rest of the city in that era of the Central Park Five and Bernie Goetz. I would mostly go to Barnes & Noble—there was only one in Manhattan back then, on 18th Street and 5th Avenue—a store large enough that no one really took mind of my presence. You could go to a Barnes & Noble and go to the black books section and see nothing but great literature. I’d just go through the books in that section one by one. All winners. These weren’t writers who were necessarily taught in my classes in school, but their work awakened me and transported me and reframed my own vision. I would dive into the worlds the books created and then look up from every page and notice that my own world was changing, too.

. . . .

The editor in chief asked me to immediately do some part-time work on a probationary basis, filling in for an assistant editor who’d gone off on a some long, exotic-seeming journey. I walked out of the interview into a cubicle, and the first task I was given was to type a rejection letter, the first, maybe, of millions. A busy-looking editor came over and quickly dictated the letter to me while I scrambled to write it all down on a pad. Then I pulled my chair up to the typewriter, eager to prove myself, and realized that I had no idea how to type a letter. I’d never typed a letter in my life. Where on the page do you start? I decided to start at the upper left-hand corner of the page, tight against the edge of the paper. I didn’t really understand margins, so the whole letter sat up at the top left corner of the page. I typed the letter quickly—I was at least a fast typist—and handed it over to the editor, who, I remember, was smoking a cigarette in her office at the time. She looked at the letter—in my memory it was stained with the sweat of my anxiety—and shook her head. “You have no idea how to do this, do you?” she asked.

And then she told me how to do it. And then they hired me.

. . . .

A freelance lawyer with whom I worked to create a contract boilerplate—well, I typed it—taught me all about publishing contracts and law. Two exotically beautiful assistant editors—one a salty, militantly bohemian English man who’d just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in advanced mathematics, the other a young black woman with dreads who’d just finished at the New School—did their best to corrupt me after hours and with more reading assignments: Anaïs Nin, Rimbaud; Didion, Hunter Thompson; Luc Sante, Barthes, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Amos Tutuola. I worked there for less than two years, mostly part time, and eventually enrolled at Columbia, but I never looked back; I worked in and around books and publishing more or less from that point forward.

So what does this say about the way publishing can diversify? Well, a few things. First: I was not, to put it lightly, qualified for the job in a technical sense. I was a recent high school graduate. I’d never worked in an office before. I didn’t have a résumé and didn’t even know how to type a letter. I’d read deeply in certain areas but in the style of an autodidact, not a scholar. But I was passionate about the work. I was willing to learn. And I became an asset to that strange company, instead of a likely terrible security guard.

Publishing, it turns out, is a job you can learn while doing, if people are willing to help a little. I was lucky to find my way into a publishing house that was not constrained by corporate hiring practices, so they could take a risk on someone like me.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

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